Thursday, November 28, 2013

CBC In Crisis: Then and Now

In 1970 I started covering TV as the critic for The Globe And Mail replacing an ailing Blaik Kirby.
I sat next to Kirby during my two summers at Canada's "Grey Lady" and enjoyed his wit --he was given the job because he despised the medium and openly boasted he watched less TV than the ordinary Canadian.
In September 1971 I jumped ship to become the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator a middling paper of 140,000 circulation but one which had always had TV coverage.
The TV universe in 1971 was vastly different than it is today.
At first I had only to cover seven stations : Buffalo's Channel 4 (WBEN), 7 (WKBW) and 2 (WGR) as well as PBS's Channel 17.
In the "Golden Horseshoe" one could get these canadian stations: CBLT (Channel 5), CTV's CFTO (Channel 9) and Hamilton feisty independent CHCH-TV.
TVOntario was just about to burst on the horizon as was Toronto's CITY-TV, Channel 79 --when it came on the signal was too weak to hit Hamilton and some people in my apartment building would venture to a Burlington motel on a Friday night to catch the station's raunchy adult movies.
The job just was different in those days.
For one thing there were no cassettes so to preview an upcoming special I'd have to drive into Toronto and watch it unspool in a screening room --CBC has a block of these tiny theaters in its Bay street offices.
In fact there was no CBC headquarters in those days.
The network had grown all over the place.
Up Yonge Street was the studio where Front Page Challenge was taped --also important dramas like the black and white version of Macbeth starring a young Scots named Sean Connery.
It was made by CBC's schools department because Ontario's Grade 13 students were taking Macbeth that year.
Down on Jarvis Street CBC Radio occupied the Victorian premises of an old girls' school. A Victorian house beside it, dunned "The Kremlin" was the headquarters for local station CBLT.
I met this year's Nobel prize winner there, Alice Munro whose book of stories had been made into a CBC-TV movie titled Lives Of Girls And Women.
But when producer Ross McLean tried to get the live feed from the next building into the screening room there was a flash of light and then no signal at all.
The charming Alice Munro simply shrugged her shoulders and got into her car for the drive back to London.
Beside there was a five story TV complex that housed  several studios including the one shared by Friendly Giant and The National News.
A smaller studio built on the side later was the place where Adrienne Clarkson and Paul Soles hosted the daily afternoon show Take 30 --when visiting I always could hear the traffic out on Jarvis.
I remember one interview with singer Juliette when she said alarm bells sounded when one episode of her Saturday night music show failed to reach the necessary 3 million viewers.
Wait a minute? Three million!
By 1970 competition had whittled that number way down.
CBC's 1970 dictionary definition of a hit was 1 million for a series and 2 million for a TV special or movie.
Let's flash forward 43 years and once again CBC is in crisis.
From 1970 and the definition of TV as a "Tube of Plenty" we're into a universe of hundreds of networks, stations, specialty channels.
CBC's National now gets an average 400,000 viewers a night at 10 p.m. against CTV news's 1.2 million at 11.
In 1970 CBC produced its own operas, ballets, music specials --all have gone the way of such sparkling kids' series as Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup.
TV movies? One or two a year at best compared to the weekly dosage back then.
And the other day as I visited CBC --this time in a huge white elephant of a plant on Front Street West I once again wondered about the long term fate of the visibly declining public corporation.
I got off at the wrong floor and wandered through long, narrow corridors --when I peered through the doors all I could see was abandoned space for all the shows already shuttered.
On the top floor there are these gigantic but empty studios used for making musicals and comedy spectaculars.
One is named after legendary director Norman Campbell who I'd frequently interview in the old days.
Last time we met (he died in ) he was sitting along in a bleak CBC office telling me he'd never been able to work in the studio named after him "because it would be too expensive."
All the new cable weblets which have sprung up were supposed to pick up the slack.
Instead Canadians are watching more American TV than ever befpre.
When my predecessor at The Toronto Star, Jack Miller, sat down in 1975 with the BBM ratings books fhe estimated the average Torontonian watched less than 10 % Canadian shows during prime time over an average week.
Jack's revelations resulted in questions in parliament.
Today that figure must be lower than 5 % --it's just that nobody cares anymore.
Every year CBC's budgets gets whittled down a little bit more --I've termed it death by a thousand cuts.
With Rogers gobbling up hockey CBC will be deprived of a desperately needed $200 million in revenues.
NHL Hockey provides Rogers with a huge block of Canadian content meaning it no longer has to legally produce much in the way of Canadian dramas and comedy. Rogers already dumped Murdoch Mysteries as too costly (CBC picked it up).
Remember one hour of "Cancom" counts as 90 minutes --there's a special bonus given to the networks to do what they should have been doing all along.
CTV knew that decades ago when it would run world ice skating championships with Johnny Esaw night after night --the network was stockpiling buckets of "Cancom" enabling it to ditch most Canadian shows for the next few months.
Right now it's CBC that has been placed in peril by the sell out of NHL hockey which has been on CBC since TV started in 1952.

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